WHILE we are being careful with our cash amid the cost of living crisis, the supermarkets are raking it in, with whopping profits reported. These often come at a cost to the people who produce the food. Farmers warn the prices they are paid by the stores just aren’t enough to cover the spiralling cost of fuel, feed and fertiliser.
Some of the best dairy products in the world comes from Scotland because our soggy, long summer days generate some of the best grass on the planet. For centuries, Scottish butter has been a kitchen staple, accessible and easy to find.
Yet “own-brand” Scottish butter disappeared from most supermarket shelves across Scotland in 2018. Until recently, the German supermarkets were a bastion for budget Scottish butter but Lidl customers have been getting in touch with the #keepScotlandtheBrand campaign to say not only has it vanished from the shelves, Scottish milk is also getting harder to find.
When contacted, Lidl assured me Scottish dairy produce would be back in stock “in due course”.
Of all the supermarkets contacted, only the Co-op was prepared to make clear its commitment to Scottish produce.
A spokesperson said: “We’re proud to work with Scottish farmers and all of Co-op own-brand milk and cheese sold in Scotland is sourced from Scottish dairy farmers, which is clearly labelled on the pack.”
Scotland’s farmers need customer loyalty like never before. We are losing farms at an alarming rate. Uncertainties around grants and expensive environmental regulations are causing serious concerns.
The Northern Isles provide a stark example of what is happening across Scotland. In 1994, 12 farms supplied Shetland Farm Dairies with local produce. Then, the supermarkets began shipping milk and butter up on the ferries. Now? There are only two dairies left in Shetland.
John Irvine’s family have been at Setter Farm in Tingwall since the 1680s. “When the supermarkets sell milk below what it costs to produce it, we just can’t compete,” he says. “If we want to put the price of milk up to reflect our increased costs, the supermarkets challenge that. If farmers were paid a decent price for the food we grow, we would have the money to take the steps we need to improve biodiversity and environmental protections.”
Recent storms saw the shop shelves empty when the ferry service to the islands was cut for four days.
Irvine says: “We need to be very careful about what we want. If we lose the farms and stock, where does our dairy come from? It will take years to turn around again. If the farms go, the food goes. It’s very obvious to us there are food shortages coming down the line – and it’s not far off.”
Martin Burgess of Quendale Farm re-iterates that the pressures from the supermarkets and from legislators are a serious concern.
He says: “Neither the UK nor the Scottish Government seem to realise their policies are wrecking the ability of Scotland to feed itself! We have huge capital costs but the returns just aren’t there to pay for them.”
There is, Burgess hopes, an opportunity to put some diversification back into their business – the power of the Shetland brand. “There is significant loyalty from locals to the Shetland milk,” he says. “We have launched a glass bottle scheme and are slowly building that side of the business up in small, independent outlets.”
From Shetland, we go to Stranraer, where National Farmers Union of Scotland milk chairman Gary Mitchell has 900 cattle grazing.
He says: “A lot of food inflation is being driven by farmers getting out of the sector because there isn’t any money in farming because supermarkets are driving the prices they pay farmers down at the same time our costs are soaring.”
UK-wide milk co-operatives have seen processing plants expanded and developed in Wales and England but closed in Scotland.
Mitchell says: “Well over 100 million litres a year go south of the Border to be processed. Think of all those food miles. I would like to see every litre produced in Scotland processed in Scotland.”
Brexit. Covid. Putin’s war in Ukraine. The climate emergency. There are significant pressures on Scotland’s food and drink resilience. We need to make sure the supermarkets know how we feel about supporting our food and drink producers.
We need to support small independent outlets. Things are bad now. Grim. Hungry and horrific for too many. And of the farmers I am speaking to, every one of them is telling me they fear it will get worse.
We have to lobby our elected representatives at every level. We need Scotland’s farmers to be able to weather the storms ahead.
Ruth Watson is the founder of the Keep Scotland the Brand campaign